Saturday, May 15, 2010

Garden Growing Wild

In Christopher Alexander's book, A Pattern Language, he extols the beauty of the wild garden:

   "A garden which grows true to its own laws is not a wilderness, yet not entirely artificial either....In the garden growing wild, the plants are chosen, and the boundaries placed, in such a way that the growth of things regulates itself.  It does not need to be regulated by control.  But it does not grow fiercely and undermine the ways in which it is planted.  Natural wild plants, for example, are planted among flowers and grass, so that there is no room for so-called weeds to fill the empty spaces and then need weeding....A garden growing wild is healthier....The garden can be left alone, it will not go to ruin in one or two seasons...the gardens that have to be tended obsessively enslave a person to them....Therefore, grow grasses, mosses, bushes, flowers and trees in a way which comes close to the way that they occur in nature:  intermingled, without barriers between them, without bare earth, without formal flower beds."

I have been trying to achieve this for a long time, and I think I finally let it happen this year.

The garden is an amazing jumble of blooming color.

How did it happen?  In the past I had the jumble of plants all right, but there were a lot more weeds and fewer blooms.  I changed a couple of things, and I think those changes made a big difference.

First, I had some trees to the uphill east of the garden taken down, so that more sunlight reaches it.  That helped the irises, peonies, and roses bloom more.

Second, I filled all the beds as closely as possible with perennials.  In the past some of the four or five beds were half empty, and weeds did grow in those spaces. I didn't buy many new perennials; I just divided the ones I already had, mostly daylilies, peonies,  and bearded iris and Siberian irises.  I used to think you had to have a lot of different kinds of flowers in a "good" perennial garden, but now I know that you can just keep dividing the ones you have, and the effect will be really lush.  I also found out that it's better if you use a closer spacing than what the directions say:  instead of fifteen inches apart for daylilies, for example, put them twelve inches apart.

Third, I have a couple of biennial and annual species that seed themselves, sometimes prolifically:  Dame's Rocket, nigella, a few corn poppies, columbines, and hollyhocks, plus some ones whose names I'vc forgotten.  I sometimes help these seed themselves by shaking the seedpods around the place when they go to seed.  The birds plant the poppies I think, because they crop up in surprising places like the vegetable garden.

I used to try to make foxgloves grow, but it's too much trouble:  they don't really seed themselves.  These self-seeding biennials and annuals fill in the spaces between the perennials.  To help them, I don't use a lot of mulch; that would prevent the seeds from reaching the soil.

Finally, I actually started fertilizing my garden with alfalfa pellets mainly.  The main missing nutrient was nitrogen, and alfalfa is an organic nitrogen source.  I sprinkled it around the garden last summer and again in March.  The roses in particular have done a lot better since I started fertilizing them.  I have two David Austen roses, Heritage and Gertrude Jekyll, plus some wilder ones that I found around Putnam County and rooted.

(In the past I've used regular chemical fertilizer, but it seemed to encourage to much rank weed growth.)

Also I've learned not to be afraid to try to divide pretty much anything.  I started out with two peony bushes, and now I have many.  It takes a couple of years for a new division to make flowers, but it's worth it.  And it's the best way to get the many plants you need for that full, lush, wild garden effect.

The wild garden style suits my situation since I am not at my garden for months at a time.  I spend most of my gardening time growing vegetables to eat, but I love to look at, photograph, draw, and give away flowers.  So the fact that I spent almost no time at all on this garden, and yet it looks so beautiful, seems wonderful to me, like a gift.  I think I would do it this way even if I were here all the time.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Iris, goddess of the rainbow

The goddess Iris has appeared on Brangus Lane, in myriad forms.

She mostly takes the form of bearded irises.  There are a lot of blue ones, which is good because the blue iris is the Tennessee state flower.

I have an old type of blue one in my garden.  It is smaller than the one above in my neighbor's garden, and the blue is more muted and pastel.  I like the older irises for their quieter colors and smaller flowers.  They look more natural in a wild garden like mine than the "irises on steroids" that you see  in catalogues.

I also have some bicolored irises in my garden:  the standards are light blue, and the falls are sort of purple.  They've been in my garden for about twenty years, and I can't remember where I got them.

I also have a very old yellow type that I found growing in front of an abandoned house in Cookeville.  I love it because it is so fragrant and petite.

Ok, now back to irises on steroids, the more modern hybrids.  There are lots of them growing in my neighbors' gardens.  Here's a bicolored one.

Here's a yellow one that is a much deeper, more saturated yellow than the old ones in my garden.

There's even a "black" iris, which is really more like a very dark purple.

All of the above irises are bearded irises.  But there are other irises that are beardless.  One that is common in my neighborhood (because I gave a lot of it away) is Iris pseudacorus.  It has a different shape, and it only comes in yellow.

I have mixed feelings about Iris pseudacorus.  On the one hand, it is very easy to grow; it loves wet places especially.  I planted some down by Bear Creek, almost in the creek bed, and it thrived there.  It is used, in fact, in water purification systems:  the plant sucks excess nutrients out of water, for example from fertilizer or animal waste run-off.  It is the original "fleur-de-lis," and all of us Who Dats therefore like it.

But in an ordinary garden, the small clump that you planted grows and grows until it's a very big clump.  And then it's hard to dig up and get rid of:  it's strongly rooted, which is a good thing when it's in a creek bed and a lot of water is rushing over its roots.  Also, it doesn't have the sweet fragrance that the bearded irises have.

So from now on I'm only going to plant it where it belongs, near or in water.  You can see a beautiful stand of it growing this way at Cheekwood in Nashville.